“Well, if it isn’t the mater, the mother,” says Sarah, looking up as I enter the shared grad student office, “she who created herself out of primordial chaos.”
A medievalist and my best friend in the program, Sarah has a tangle of tattooed roses on her collarbone and frizzy hair the color of red sangria.
I sit down at a desk by hers and attempt to breathe.
“Warm-up contractions. It feels like my whole body is a fist.”
Six months ago, when I told Sarah I was pregnant, she showed me a photo of a fifteenth-century sculpture of the pregnant Virgin Mary. Among the folds of Mary’s dress, the fetal Christ child stood in a rectangular panel, gazing out like a smug tourist riding a glass elevator. Sarah explained that the science of the day had no concept of embryo development, so Jesus was shown fully grown, a homunculus.
That little Christ was on my mind the day I went in for my twenty-week ultrasound. The obscure figure on the screen couldn’t have been more different. Mateo gripped my hand, and the tech identified the various body parts. “Are we learning the gender today?” he asked, and when we nodded, he pointed to a smudge near the bottom of the screen. “See those three lines? Girl power!”
Girl power indeed. I’m broke, unmarried. I’m in grad school. The decision to have a baby, if it can be called one, had something to do with the joy on Mateo’s face the night I walked out of the bathroom holding the pregnancy test. It also had some connection to my life in academia, though I can’t say just how. When I arrived on campus lo these many years ago as a new PhD student, the dream of one day becoming a tenured professor bobbed before me like a soap bubble. Oh, I knew about the terrible job market and the abysmal odds, but I believed that if I just worked hard enough and ran after that bubble, I would reach it. The irony isn’t lost on me: I applied the American bootstraps philosophy to a soap bubble.
All that changed when I found out I was pregnant. Surprise! Since then, I’ve been working hard as ever, but the ambition seems to have drained out of me. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that the pregnancy has been a lens, and academia now seems a starker, meaner place—a spartan little factory that runs on the grist of shy and diligent people. At this late stage in my grad school career, I’m supposed to be drafting job application cover letters. Here’s one I wrote the other day while zoning out on the ride to campus: Dear hiring committee, please accept my application to teach a 5-5 load of first-year writing courses and to one day, perhaps a few semesters into my appointment, inexplicably lose my ever-loving shit while teaching, sobbing so loudly and magnificently that my students blanch in horror and telephone campus security, which sends a soft-hearted guard to escort me to the counseling office, where I continue to sob—but louder than before, my face a mottled and worrying purple.
“You okay?” says Sarah. “Going into labor?”
“No, no. I’ve got at least two weeks.”
“I hate that you’re uncomfortable, and I’m pissed off with that adorable fetus of yours. Do you realize she’s increasing your blood pressure so that more blood goes to the placenta, which means less nourishment for the rest of you?”
“How do you know these things?”
My phone buzzes. It’s Molly. Why is she calling?
“Cal? Listen. It’s about Aunt Rita.”
My sister’s voice sounds strained, and I have the urge to reach through the phone and tug it loose from whatever it caught on.
“She went to the hospital last week for some kind of minor procedure and contracted pneumonia.” My sister’s breath comes in quick gulps. “Cal, she died. She died this morning. I have to go. I have to call a million people.”
I set down the phone. “My aunt died.”
Sarah has the stern expression she gets when she’s concerned. “Oh, shit. Rita?”
I nod and pull a clump of napkins from my pocket and press them against my eyes. For a moment, I forget I’m tearing up over my aunt and think it’s about some minor occurrence: a senior dog out for a walk, a commercial about someone making it home for Christmas. Just the other day I teared up at the sight of a freshly painted yellow crosswalk near my apartment. It was just so perfect. Someone had worked so hard on it.
“How long since you last saw her?”
“Two years, I think.”
It makes me sick to say that, especially since Rita lived so close. I picture her in her kitchen, just fifty miles south of where I’m sitting here in Manhattan and a twelve minute bike ride from the house in Asbury Park where I grew up. My aunt was always in motion—climbing on chairs, reaching for things; her figure was lean and elastic as a length of pulled taffy. Her art seemed that way, too. Panels of her stained glass filled the kitchen windows, and over the sofa hung an exuberant painting that showed white and gold flecks against what looked like a blacktop road. I love that painting. I wonder if it’s still in her living room.
Mushroom suit, says my phone. Molly again. I squint at the words, and a second message appears: That’s how I want to bury Rita.
“Mushroom soup?” asks Sarah.
I jump, unaware that I was reading aloud. “No, suit. Mushroom suit.”
“Oh. Like Luke Perry.”
“He’s this guy from—”
“I know who Luke Perry is.”
“Well, he was buried in one. It’s this cotton shroud with mushroom spores sown into the fabric. The spores aid in decomposition and—”
She grimaces apologetically.
“It’s okay. Rita wouldn’t mind.”
Sarah knows about my aunt. She knows about the stained glass and the abstract painting, and something else, too: the marching suit that hung in Rita’s hall closet. Before my aunt grew up and fell in love with a man who would leave her, taking her money, she played the trumpet in school and community parades. She kept the suit in her hall closet long after she stopped playing in the band, and there it hung in its plastic dry cleaner bag, amidst all her art. As a kid, I liked running my fingers through the epaulets. Rita once showed me the stained cuffs of the pants. The band had marched in a muddy field, and several rounds of dry cleaning hadn’t managed to remove the stains. Rita looked happy when she told me about that day, as if standing in the mud had been a blissful adventure.
“I have to figure out what to do,” I say, blowing my nose. “I’ll probably go back to my mother’s tomorrow. We need to plan the funeral and go to her house, Rita’s, and sort through things.”
I rest a hand on my belly. “I’m all about the labor.”
“Go home. I’m serious. If any of your students show up, I’ll scare them off.”
She snarls, showing her teeth and gums.
On the downtown platform, two women who could be sisters occupy the only bench. Each holds a stuffed bag from Century 21 on her lap. I consider going over and standing in front of them, really putting the planetoid on display, but it seems like too much trouble. My bones and ligaments are more clenched up than ever, and my internal organs feel compressed in a way that has to be dangerous. I lean on the wall and remember what it was like to be a kid, to have a body that felt like nothing at all, like air.
The train heaves into the station, and as the doors slide open, sciatica pain rockets down my lower back and into my left butt cheek. The sensation jolts me, but I manage to hobble into the train, headed for the one available seat. A dude gets there first and plops down with a sigh. I grip the pole, trying unsuccessfully to make eye contact with the people in seats. When the train lurches, I move like the world’s clumsiest pole dancer. Are third-trimester pole dancers a thing? No doubt someone’s into that.
Rita and I rode the subway together a couple of times when I was young. We ate lunch at a bakery and then went to the Frick and looked at paintings by Rembrandt and Titian. Going places with Rita felt exciting and grown-up, but I liked best being at her house, hanging out with her as she buzzed around. Once, when I was nine or ten, I biked over there and found her in the living room, lying atop scaffolding that she’d rigged. Her feet were in the air like a dead bug, and she greeted me cheerfully. She explained that she’d just coated the ceiling with paint and was going to walk in it. “Push, Cal!” she told me, so I pushed the wheeled scaffolding around the room and kept going until she’d stomped over the entire ceiling, covering it with footprints like choppy water.
Time at my aunt’s house was a break from the perfection of my own home. No one there stomped on the ceiling; the décor never changed. I loved Rita’s commotion. But when I hit my teenage years, something shifted in me and I started pulling away from my aunt. She kept inviting me over, but I made excuses. At the time, I didn’t understand my withdrawal. Had I been asked, I probably would have replied that I was busy, or proffered some cliché about people growing apart. But now, gripping a subway pole, I see that I pulled away from my aunt because I was confused about how to be a person, a girl. No one is more rigid or easily embarrassed than a teenager, and I must have felt that my aunt, so free of self-consciousness and conventionality, ought to try harder to be like other people. Barring that, she ought to feel a bit ashamed. She wasn’t a mother, which was fine, but then she should try to be a more successful artist. I don’t think Rita ever had a gallery show or sold more than one or two pieces of her art. As a fretful teenager, this troubled me.
But my aunt was happy, or at least intensely alive, and the younger me recoiled from that also. I remember, at some family occasion when I was in high school, watching my aunt roam the rented banquet room with a look of piercing curiosity, now and then making one of her esoteric comments. I recall that I wore a rayon wrap dress and made a point of talking vivaciously with everyone, as if my bland femininity could sop up my aunt’s problematic variety.
I was a big achiever in those days. In my junior year of high school, I won first place in an essay contest sponsored by the plumbing company Kohler. The assigned topic was “Never give up!” and the winning essay was published in the company’s newsletter. My teachers and my mother were excited for me, but when I told Rita about it, she seemed only puzzled. That awkward conversation widened the rift between us. Years ticked by, and I didn’t even call her when I found out I was pregnant; I let my mother share the news. In response, my aunt left me a voicemail—rowdy, warm, congratulatory. It sounded like there were people in the background and they were happy for me, too. I rewarded the voicemail with a text promising to call. Now, as the train drops underground and then swoops back up, the lie rattles in my chest.
Outside the station, taxis leave yellow streaks in the muggy air. I get home and drop onto the sofa. My mother still hasn’t texted or called, despite my having left several messages. Mateo hasn’t contacted me either, but he’s on a flight back from a work trip overseas and isn’t landing for another hour. I scroll through my texts and realize I didn’t get back to Molly about the mushroom suit.
“I’m fine with it.” I write. “What does Mom think?”
I close my eyes and see Rita in the red, stippled darkness. She’s balanced on a step stool, elbows bent like wings. Then she’s gone, replaced by a network of mycelium, sending out nutrients into a black soil world. Among the roots is my mother’s closed bedroom door, and under the door, silence pools into the hallway in expanding circles. When Molly and I were young, our mother would occasionally disappear into her room without warning. She would put down her dust rag or laundry basket and just leave. She might spend the whole day shut up in there, only to reemerge later, acting like she’d just stepped away for a moment.
I sometimes dream about that closed door. Now, in the red darkness, I see my sister squelching toward it. She knocks and waits, then knocks again. It was always like that, Molly standing at the door while I hung back proudly.
My phone lurches on my chest.
“Mom! Why’d you wait so long to get back to me?”
“Listen, I hear that you and Molly were talking about Rita’s burial. It’s the marching suit, hon. Rita will wear the marching suit.”
“Marching? Don’t you mean mushroom?”
“No, marching, as in marching band. You know Rita loved it.” Her voice drops to a reverential whisper. “And she was so thin that I’m sure it still fits her.”
We’re quiet for a moment, and my mother asks, “Are you coming home?”
“Of course! Tomorrow. Why wouldn’t I?”
After we hang up, I email my students to cancel the next day’s classes. There’s a thrill in cancelling things, like sweeping clutter off a table with the back of your hand. I put on my coat and go outside. The bells jingle as I enter the corner bodega. Just past the dusty tins of fruit cocktail and the refrigerator cases of tacky energy drinks, I find what I’m looking for, the food I’ve been craving for months but not allowing myself: Twinkies.
On the grueling walk back upstairs to my apartment, I chew the first cake with wide-open bites to allow in air. I wait until I’m in bed to have the second one, turning it over and examining the holes where the frosting was injected. Pristine and chemical, the cake would make a fine sofa cushion for a doll house. I bite off the end, and the sugar hits my brain with a pyrotechnic burst. I imagine stuffing myself with dozens of cakes to see me through the years ahead.
My ceiling makes me think of Rita’s living room with its churning paint. Helping her that day had been a thrill. Later, I came to regard that wild ceiling as pointless, a work of art that no one could buy and that no one wanted anyway. It’s clear to me now, too late, that my aunt was attempting something vast with that scaffolding and paint. She was stomping away at the edges of thought, demanding infinitude from her life, the way even a small seashell gives voice to the ocean.
Something flutters in me, and I tug up my shirt to take a look. The movement happens again, over my right hip. The sensation hardens, focusing into a pointy outcropping. What is it? An elbow, a wing, a flipper, a hoof? I prod at the shape with my finger, and it drops away, sliding into the amniotic sea.
Contractions kick in—painful ones. Mateo gets home, thank God, and helps me into a cab. Low amniotic fluid. Fetal distress, says the doctor, and they give me an epidural and Pitocin, and I push and push, and amid the numbness comes a faraway, suppressed pain: Ava edging free. I hear her cry before I see her. Years afterward, that distinctive mewling newborn cry, heard in grocery stores or emerging from passing strollers, will stir in me a deep and almost painful agitation.
The nurses make Mateo leave, and I try to get Ava to eat. My skin tingles from the epidural, and my breasts are useless. I keep trying to force one of them into her mouth, violating her sleep. She arches away, like she’s dreaming of something better—like she knows she can get her nourishment elsewhere.
Behind a curtain, a woman moans about her c-section. “Hurts like …hurts like a motherfucker.”
“I’m sorry,” I tell her.
There’s a long pause, and then, “thanks.”
I’m in the hospital for a week due to complications. I don’t make it to Rita’s funeral. I call Molly, pressing her for details about the service.
“She wore the marching suit,” she says. “Yes, it fit. She looked beautiful. What else do you want to know? A ton of mom’s friends were there.”
Round the clock, I’m in this hospital bed. I keep falling asleep with Ava in my arms and then jerking awake, afraid. I don’t know anything about newborns except that they need milk and warmth and that their diapers are impossibly small. One night I dream that a nurse comes by and takes Ava from my arms, swaddles her carefully, and wheels her away on a cart. The nurse is older and kind. She speaks to me over her shoulder as she leaves: Close your eyes. That’s an order. I obey, because in the logic of the dream, a woman doesn’t sleep unless another woman tells her to, and the sleep that follows is deep and refreshing, and nothing bad can happen while she’s gone.
When Ava is a few months old, the three of us leave the city and move to a small town on the other side of the country. We go for Mateo’s job. I leave with my dissertation finished but undefended. I spend the first several months walking around the house, wearing Ava in a carrier. I’m lonely, but that’s nothing new. It’s more than that. I feel overtaken by memories and regrets—ruled is the word that flashes in my mind. I missed my aunt’s funeral. My mother and sister feel more distant than ever. The three of them form a triangle in my thoughts. I remind myself that Rita is dead, and my mother and sister are fine without me. They’ve been more or less without me for years. But I still think about them almost obsessively, as if all the thinking could add up to something real, a tangible act of love.
I miss Sarah, too, and remember how, after Ava was born, she showed up at my apartment unexpectedly one day with lunch. She brought bread and cheese and a salad of tomatoes, garbanzo beans, cucumbers, and feta. Then she held Ava while I ate.
In our new town, I apply for jobs and land one in publishing that lets me work from home most days. To my surprise, I take up writing poetry, a former practice of mine. I write the first poem while Ava is playing in the sandbox, and then several other poems rush out after. The shadow self that waited in me for so long wakes up and gyrates terrifyingly. I keep writing. When Ava is a year and a half, the sandbox poem is published in a fairly well-known magazine. Then, when Ava is two, I fly across the country to defend my dissertation. That first night back, I have dinner with Sarah. We drink wine and discuss the logistics of long-distance lust (she’s in a new, torrid relationship with a philosophy MA student from McGill). I take the train to my mother’s house and have breakfast with her and Molly. It’s a surprisingly tranquil three hours. We talk about coffee and Target and Molly’s new hairless cat.
My defense is held in a classroom under fluorescent lights. It goes smoothly, and my committee members join me afterward in drinking champagne. They’re kind and encouraging, but there’s something unfocused in their eyes, as if they’ve long since moved on to the next promising student. I really can’t blame them. I’ve moved on myself.
One night, many years into my life in the small town, I wake up thirsty and find Ava in the living room. She’s looking at her phone and doesn’t glance up when I walk into the room. I get some water and sit opposite her and study the painting over the mantle. It’s the abstract work of Rita’s that I’ve always loved, the painting of white, gold, and black. Before we moved away, my mother agreed to let me have it. Now, even after years of owning it, I still look at it each time I enter the room.
Ava keeps scrolling, and I begin talking about the painting and the way it’s marked a path through my life: first, at my childhood visits with Rita; then, in my adolescence and early adulthood when I fell out of touch with my aunt but still thought about her and her art; then, when I went to her place and lifted the painting off the wall. That’s something I love about art, I tell Ava—how it lives with you, keeps pace with you. Maybe that’s especially true for abstract art.
Only then does my daughter look up. “What do you mean? It’s not abstract. It’s a marching band. Look, those are the stripy cords on the front of the suits.”
She points. “The boots. You don’t see? Didn’t you say your aunt was buried in a marching suit?”
I study the painting and see what I’ve always seen. Then the image shifts and a group of people are moving in tandem down a black road, their white and gold uniforms flashing.
I gape at Ava, who returns to her phone with a frown of disdain. I get up and sit down beside her, feeling the familiar retraction as she edges away. Above the window shades, the night is black and starless, and inside the room, shadows pool under the furniture. Off in the kitchen, the cat’s dish rattles as he snuffles around for whatever he can find. I once read an article on some parenting website that said you should never be the first to end an embrace with your child. The tone of the piece was saccharine, but that advice stuck with me. Whatever this is with Ava can hardly be considered an embrace, but all the same, I stay.
Jane Halpert’s writing has appeared in Hobart, The Millions, Entropy, The Rumpus, The New York Times, and Prairie Fire, among other places. She lives in Ann Arbor.
Evie Shaffer is an award-winning photographer and visual artist passionate about creating beauty with a purpose. Combining a range of mediums and fine art techniques, she creates compelling visual imagery for people and brands. Her unique and exploratory style has earned worldwide attention and given millions of people free access to her photographs through Unsplash and Pexels.